“Taper” is one of the most loaded concepts in swimming vernacular. At mere mention, the word conjures complicated emotions and visions of wizardry.
What is tapering?
Simply put, tapering is the process, undertaken by athletes, to systematically decrease work load, while managing fatigue in an effort to maximize performance at a specific time. In today’s post, we hope to demystify the process a bit and dispel some common misconceptions.
Bouncing off the Walls
During taper, your swimmer is likely to have extra energy. Don’t worry, this is typically a good thing- extra energy can be a sign that the athlete is ready to race at peak performance. However, you might need to be careful how you manage that extra energy. Sorry Mom and Dad, now is not the time to take advantage and load on extra yard work. Don’t crash the gym for extra pick-up basketball or an increased weight lifting load- save that energy for your race(s). Taper, especially in the last week, is a time to rest on the couch, legs up, relaxing.
Taper is a Science, but also an Art, and certainly NOT Magic.
Based on the science of super-compensation, there is no doubt the theory of tapering is firmly planted in the scientific world. However, when pressed for an answer on taper, many elite coaches will steer the discussion back towards the work that proceeded the taper, rather than the composition of the taper itself. Their sentiment is illustrative - there is no taper that will correct for the lack of methodical preparation, determination and hard work. There is a lot of variance in types and lengths of taper and coaches must wade through some trial and error to find what works best for each athlete.
Nothing Happens in a Vacuum
There are many things that can effect your swimmer’s performance, and timing of the rest cycle is just one of them. Maximizing athletic performance is a complicated stew, and life outside the pool can be more impactful than many swim parents realize. As athlete’s mature they learn to manage an array of outside factors which can influence their results. Racing can be effected by a myriad of factors: stress, school work, relationships, phys. ed class, diet, mental preparedness, sleep, anxiety, body composition… the list goes on. Thus, when drawing conclusions as to whether your swimmer was rested “properly”, please remember many factors play are role.
Taper is Individual
While there are some broad agreements in literature about tapering, opinions and research can veer wildly from the median. Truth is, the effectiveness of a specific taper is highly individualized. For example, a particular swimmer may optimize their performance with a 10 day rest, while another may need more- successful rest cycles can vary from as little as 3 days to over 21 days. Thus, there is a significant amount of trial and error coaches will need to undertake in order to find what works best for each swimmer. This variance is further complicated by the fact that a swimmer’s needs evolve as they mature and their bodies change. It’s a nightmare to plan for, but fact is, a rest cycle that worked for a swimmer when they were 14 may not work as well when they are 18.
Don’t blame it on the Taper/ “Hitting the Taper”
Among swim parents, the most common explanation for performance (good and bad) is the “quality” of the taper. Great performance is seen as a result of a well planned rest cycle and weak performance is explained away as a “missed taper”. The concept of “Hitting a Taper” is a broad over-simplification. One might imagine that a coach would need to hit the perfect date with scientific precision to maximize performance, like an archer hitting a bullseye. A better analogy, however, would be opening a window. The window for peak performance after a rest cycle can be much longer than one might imagine. Some research suggests that this window could be open past two weeks- potentially even longer with proper maintenance.
Now, the most important point of all …
*Doubt is the Enemy of Performance*
When experienced coaches are asked what type of degree would be most impactful for a career in swim coaching, the most common answer is… psychology. Experienced coaches know, preparing to perform is part physical and part mental.
When a swimmer believes they have prepared properly, and they KNOW they are relying on a season’s worth of good work, they are able to stand on the block and confidently approach the race with an open heart. However, when doubt overshadows this confidence, it can be very hard to overcome. Doubts, regrettably, can be inserted by well intentioned swim parents. If a parent reviews a swim or session (during a competition) with their swimmer they should be careful not to call into question the swimmer’s training, preparedness or composition of the rest cycle - those doubts can define your swimmer’s approach and if your swimmer is overcome with doubt they are highly unlikely to perform to their potential.
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